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The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Library of Religious Biography (LRB)) Paperback – July 6, 2015
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"An engaging and insightful introduction."
Kenneth Minkema in The Catholic Historical Review
"Rick Kennedy's lively take on Cotton Mather's extraordinary life is very welcome. . . . Not your grandfather's Mather."
"Kennedy has written a sympathetic and insightful introduction to a generally unfairly maligned and undervalued figure in American history."
Douglas A. Sweeney
— author of The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement
"Cotton Mather is widely seen as a moralistic hypocrite, a one-dimensional bad guy we moderns love to hate. But in this lively new biography, he takes on flesh and blood and, more importantly, a heart. . . . This courageous little book offers readers a better feel for Mather's vibrant, quirky, learned, evangelical spirituality than anything before."
— author of The Spiritual Practice of Remembering
"Few historical figures have been as misunderstood as Cotton Mather, roundly dismissed in our own time as the ultimate Puritan killjoy. Rick Kennedy's richly textured account reminds us why Mather still matters — why we should care about, maybe even embrace, this complex man who made such an indelible impact on our religious world today."
George M. Marsden
— author of A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards
"Mather's life is one of the most fascinating in all of American history. Rick Kennedy has done a fine job in providing a sympathetic, engaging, and yet brief account of such a many-sided and influential personality."
— general editor of Cotton Mather's Biblia Americana — America's First Bible Commentary
"In this charming biography, Cotton Mather emerges as the grandfather of American evangelicalism, who valiantly guided his community through troubled times. Kennedy enables us to look into the heart and soul of this Puritan pastor who adapted New England's old-time religion to the needs of a new age. This is a fresh and perceptive introduction to Mather's complex life."
"The author humbly avoids a judgmental tone toward Mather or the Puritans. He does not indulge in chronological snobbery and assume the tone of moral superiority typical of many other historians. Instead, Kennedy sets Mather in a historical context and highlights his strengths and weaknesses accordingly. . . . [He] tries to capture the evangelical heart of Mather, as a bridge builder from the Puritan era to the next wave of the Holy Spirit in the Great Awakening led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield."
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Kennedy has recently added to his list of publications a fine biography, one of an excellent series of religious biographies edited by Mark Noll, entitled The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2015). “In this book,” Kennedy says, placing Mather (the son of Increase Mather, an equally significant Massachusetts clergyman) in his historical milieu, “I will focus on Cotton and his self-conscious desire to tug against the slide of genteel Protestantism” (#152). And as the title indicates, he wants to identify Cotton Mather as the “first evangelical”—a position usually assigned to leaders of the First Great Awakening such as Jonathan Edwards, the great theologian, and George Whitefield, the wondrously winsome itinerant English evangelist. Two decades before the Great Awakening broke out in the 1730s, many of its elements emerged under Mather’s ministry in Boston: “Thousands of people and a large number of churches rallied to the way Cotton Mather articulated and modeled what he called an ‘all day long faith’ and described as a way of walking ‘to the very top of Christianity’” (#162).
Along with many Puritans, Mather refused to be labeled a “Calvinist” and selected the term “Eleutherian” (a Greek word for freedom), to denote his singular commitment to the New Testament message, for as St Paul declared to the Galatians: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!” In the 1690s, he led a small band of “Eleutherians” who where committed to the “evangelical interest,” a more intense form of discipleship and piety than was then evident in Boston. He became “a standard-bearer for a my-utmost-for-his-highest type of Christianity, which moderates saw as too extreme” #1733). Thus to Kennedy: “Herein lies the birth of the evangelical tradition in America: A coalition of ministers and laypeople rallied to Cotton Mather’s call to a zealous, freedom-loving, Bible focused Protestantism that was open to spiritual activities and communications” #1748).
Born in Boston in 1663, Cotton was the “oldest child of Increase Mather and Maria Cotton. Both of his grandfathers, Richard Mather and John Cotton, were revered founders of the colony, powerful ministers, and model Puritans” (#338). But young Mather witnessed “the last decades of Puritan Boston” while preparing (through the Boston Latin School and Harvard College) to join his father in pastoring Boston’s prestigious North Church, “probably the largest and richest Protestant congregation in America” (#1090). He soon demonstrated prowess as a preacher as well as effectiveness in pastoral visitation, working with small prayer groups, launching jail ministries, promoting missions to the Indians, and fervently praying both publically and by himself in his study. “‘My life is almost a continual conversation with heaven,’ Cotton wrote in 1713” (#770). Still more, he sought to follow “‘the advice of the ancients: If you wish to be always with God, always pray, always read’” (#480).
He devoutly pursued a scholarly life, acquiring a vast library (believing “his study was a kind of holy ground”) and writing prolifically on a variety of subjects. Above all he loved and lived in the Bible, continually seeking to understand and expound it. Attuned to intellectual currents in Europe, he “was the first important scholar in America to realize that a battle for the Bible was brewing among Protestant scholars” (#2268). Many were taking a highly critical approach (manifest in the rationalism personified by Spinoza) that disregarded the Supernatural. To effectively defend the traditional, orthodox commitment to the Bible’s trustworthiness—indeed its infallibility—he embraced and articulated the philosophical “reasonableness” (rooted in Aristotle’s Topics) akin to the “courtroom jurisprudence” that Professor Kennedy has effectively emphasized throughout his publications.
For Cotton Mather, such reasonableness mines a multitude of sources, so the testimonies of the Christian tradition, preserved in its classic texts, merit respectful attention. He considered himself an historian—the study of which is “‘one of the most needful and useful accomplishments for a man that would serve God’” (#2101)—and Kennedy argues he was “the greatest American historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (#1532). “In the pulpit he upheld the Bible as divine testimony. In a book he titled Reasonable Religion, he declared that Christians are not reasonable ‘if we don’t receive that book which we call the Bible or, the Scripture, as a Divine Testimony’” (#612). Similarly, credible witnesses to miracles (whether in the Bible or in history) should not be dismissed merely because they testify to supernatural events. In that spirit he wrote “a religious and political history of New England called Magnalia Christi Americana, the “Great American Deeds of Christ,” a work that made him “an internationally known historian” when it was published in 1702 (#1542). Indeed, he had become “the most famous American in the British Empire” (#1758).
Sadly enough, few Americans today could identify Cotton Mather. If they’ve heard of him, they likely remember a minor incident—his peripheral role in the notorious Salem witch trials. When he heard reports of girls engaged in witchcraft, he urged they be brought into “the kind of healing program that had worked for” some disturbed girls he’d worked with in Boston. Secular officials intervened, however, and the trials were held. One of the judges, “Samuel Sewall later declared to his church that he was willing to ‘take the blame and shame’ of the trials upon himself. In his history of New England, Cotton agreed that the executions proceeded from mistaken principles” (#1367). Though he is frequently “associated with the witch trials,” he never attended them; “nor did he have any authority within the situation” (#1367). The extent of his influence was urging leniency in dealing with the accused.
As Thomas Kidd indicates, this biography of Cotton Mather is a “gleefully revisionist” treatise. Professor Kennedy seeks to show his subject in a positive light, quite different from the dour portraits drawn by more muckraking writers. Committed to his understanding of “reasonableness,” Kennedy is as open to Mather’s reports of God’s providential and miraculous workings in New England as Mather was open to the same realities in both Scripture and history. The book’s thesis, identifying Mather as the “first American Evangelical,” will certainly engender scholarly debates, but it seems reasonable to me to find the same spiritual hungers and convictions cultivated by Cotton Mather in New England in 1715 surfacing with more clarity and power in the First Great Awakening in the 1730s.
A visit to one of those cemeteries led me to Rick Kennedy’s book, The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather. My wife and I recently walked the section of Boston’s Freedom Trail that winds through the North End. One of the stops along the trail is Copp’s Hill Burial Ground, where we saw the Mather family grave site. This peaked our interest because, while Bostonians today revile every Christian from its past, Cotton Mather has been hated longer and stronger than the rest. Seeing this grave, we wanted to know more about this man and, as it turned out, Kennedy’s book was the perfect place to turn.
Kennedy packs many helpful themes into a short book. Mather’s life is narrated, of course, but he emphasizes Mather the man—his character, his beliefs, his thinking, and his walk with Jesus—all while giving us glimpses of life around Boston at an eventful time.
The history of Boston is engaging but Mather’s passion for Jesus is most compelling. During his life, the Puritanism that founded the colony was being replaced with a broader Protestantism that united the people with the wider British Empire, and Mather embraced that unity. But this transition also tempted Christians to compromise with British culture, and Mather fought hard against any compromises. “Cotton saw many in New England pursuing a moderation that could easily fall into a genteel lukewarmness. . . . Cotton perceived himself to have a ‘personal calling’ from God, a calling to encourage people, no matter what their exact category of spirit, to avoid lukewarmness and aspire to sanctification” (93-94). Kennedy writes that, in the midst of these compromises, Mather “temperamentally could not preach so minimalist a faith” (x).
Cotton Mather is probably smeared most often by history for killing witches in Salem. The fact is, Mather had little to do with the Salem witch trials, but he has been dragged into the center of the controversy because he had a firm, and public, belief that demons and angels were active in this world and—when the witches went on trial in Salem—many prominent Bostonians had become rationalists and considered Mather foolish and superstitious. Kennedy narrates this controversy well, and uses it to show us how Mather thought about truth.
Kennedy explains that Mather continued to believe in angels and demons because he had rejected rationalism, holding instead to “reasonableness,” a school of thought he learned back in his Harvard days. Mather considered it reasonable to accept the testimony of trustworthy people of good character regardless of the content of that testimony, while rationalists insisted on evaluating the content of the testimony before accepting it as true, regardless of who was testifying. And Mather held this view because he believed the Bible: “In the pulpit he upheld the Bible as divine testimony. In a book he titled Reasonable Religion, he declared that Christians are not reasonable ‘if we don’t receive that book which we call the Bible, or, the Scripture, as a Divine Testimony’” (23) .
While the rationalists reduced the world down to mathematics and logic, Mather kept expanding his world through his own version of enlightenment: a biblical enlightenment. This is a great legacy of Mather’s from which Christians today could benefit greatly. We need to be encouraged, as Mather encouraged his people, “to live in the light of the lively and unpredictable God of the Bible” (107). The rationalists of Mather’s day, like many people in ours, feared looking foolish by believing too much. Mather reminds us of a greater danger: that—as obstinate skeptics —we end up believing too little.
The biblical enlightenment Mather proclaimed had another wonderful benefit: he saw God as an involved, engaged conversationalist with whom Christians can speak all day long. This, Mather insisted, was the very height of Christianity: “According to him, the Bible’s depiction of God indicates a preference to be conversational, gregarious, and daily involved with everything from sustaining natural laws to answering personal prayers. What Cotton considered ‘the top of practical Christianity’ was an all-day-long, back-and-forth, life of conversation with God that begins and ends each day with listening to God specifically speak through the Bible” (109).
Here is Mather’s greatest challenge to believers today: to live in the presence of our God without any compromise with the world that might make us lukewarm toward Jesus. Mather “wanted believers to have a hot, passionate faith. He wanted people to live on earth in a heavenly way” (139). Interestingly, for Mather that didn’t mean disengaging from the culture; it meant engaging the culture with the gospel message that brings unbounded freedom in Christ. It didn’t mean abstaining from new fashions and styles found in the culture; it meant examining carefully the motives behind adopting them. Mather was “in the world” in ways that make us look like isolationists; at the same time, he was “not of the world” in ways that make us look like lukewarm materialists.
Kennedy’s book is a great encouragement to me. I was born less than five miles from Mather’s house in the North End. Like Mather I long to see a hot, passionate faith among gospel centered churches throughout New England. This is why I contribute both time and money to the NETS Center for Church Planting and Revitalization. By helping NETS fulfill its mission, I am helping to revive the legacy of Cotton Mather in the twenty-first century.
my liberal theology, which has developed out of the struggles of early Puritans. appreciates Mather's life and work without having to claim any exclusivity for his work. I am an New Englander of the Congregational tradition - which gives me some rights to Mather as well/
You learn in short compass (145 pages!) that Mather had an incredible combination of gifts: scholar, pastor, visionary, and writer.
Mather also had a wonderful skepticism towards what we typically call false dichotomies or binary traps. Mather’s “trust, but verify” approach to legitimate supernatural events is wise and instructive for us today.
Oh yeah, and if you have the stereotype of Mather being responsible for the Salem Witch Trials, you will definitely need to read this biography.